Guests: Barbara Boxer, Steve McMahon, Jim Gilmore, Michael Smerconish, Bob Herbert, Bill Frist
CHRIS MATTHEWS, MSNBC HOST: Bill and Hillary, are you ready for your closeup. For the first time since 1998, the year of Monica, the Clinton marriage is front page news. “The New York Times” today ran a top-page story saying that the subject has become Topic A among prominent Democrats. Let‘s play HARDBALL.
Good evening. I‘m Chris Matthews. After waiting in the wings for a decade, the Democrats finally have the chance to hatch a political coup.
Their matching Republicans in bank and beating them at the polls, and with the economy and Iraq topping the list of campaign issues, can George Bush do anything to save the day? And the November elections getting closer, will Republican candidates run toward the president or run way from him?
Plus the elephant in the room. Hillary Clinton wants it to be our next president but how is her marriage to Bill fitting into the master plan? We‘ll find out tonight. And Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist joins us to answer tough questions about illegal immigration.
Will congress pass a bill that deals with the problem. We begin with Senator Barbara Boxer, Democrat of California. Senator, “The New York Times” surprised us all with a front page, top of the fold story talking about the Clinton marriage, saying Democrats are all buzzing about that marriage. Is that true?
SEN. BARBARA BOXER (D), CALIFORNIA: No. Not as far as it goes here in the Senate. I don‘t know what people are buzzing about but let me tell you what I hear when I‘m out, it‘s who is going to take back the Senate, who is going to take back the House? Do we have a chance?
We are focused very much on 2006. Hillary and a long list of people are being looked at for the presidency. But that‘s way off. We have so much to do before then.
MATTHEWS: Let me ask you about those topics and I will let you set that agenda since you raised it, will the Senate go Democrat after the November elections?
BOXER: If the election were held today, we‘d be at 50-50 and now we think there are another couple of seats in play such as Tennessee, Arizona. We have a chance, but we‘re being very cautious about this. Somebody said, you know, are you measuring the drapes for the leadership? No, we‘re not. We‘re being very cautious.
What I‘m working on now is making sure that people know that Democrats really care about them, we‘re in their corner. We had a hearing today on gas prices. The Bush administration‘s FTC was just appalling. When I asked the chairman of the FTC Deborah Majoras what do people tell her about gas prices, she said, well, they understand if they sold their home and made a big profit they wouldn‘t give their big profit back.
I mean, what is that? They are out of touch and, I am just trying to let people know that if we do get to be in charge, we‘re going to be on their side.
MATTHEWS: If you knock off Mike DeWine and Lynn Chafee and Kyl, Conrad Burns and a few of the others and you get the majority back, what would you do that‘s different?
Give me a couple of ways where the Democrats will rule differently than the Republicans?
BOXER: Number one we will be on the side of the people. For example, we‘re going to fix the Medicare prescription drug plan. It is a nightmare and people are confused and we can‘t get them to push back the deadline to sign up. People are pretty soon going to come to the place where it‘s the famous donut hole where they‘ve already expended a couple of thousand and then the insurance covers nothing. We‘re going to fix it and make sure that Medicare can negotiate for lower prices.
We‘re going to look at the issue of health care. We‘re going to have a plan to allow people to buy into the same insurance that we have. That‘s going to help small business and individuals. You know, we‘re going to finally be one the side of the environment and cleaning up superfund sites and on the side of education, fully funding No Child Left Behind and we‘re going to go back to fiscal responsibility. Pay as you go. You want to give a tax cut. Pay for it. You want to spend more—pay for it. There‘s lots more we want to do.
MATTHEWS: How do you pay for a tax cut?
BOXER: It‘s very easy. You have to cut something. If you want to give a tax cut you have to cut a program that is no longer working or you are going to go and say, as opposed to giving a tax break to people who earn over $7 million a year, we‘re going to take that and we‘re going to say, we‘d rather take half of that and resolve the deficit with it, take the other half and give it back to people in the middle.
We have a lot of room to maneuver here.
MATTHEWS: The Democrats don‘t have much of a reputation for cutting out social programs or economic programs in the United States. Domestic programs. Do you think you‘re credible to say you‘re going pay for tax cuts but cutting domestic programs. Democrats don‘t cut programs, they generally create them and support them.
BOXER: Actually you‘re wrong on this point.
MATTHEWS: OK. Give me examples.
BOXER: OK. All you have to do is look at the Clinton record and there are example after example where we decided that we had to cut out programs that weren‘t working and fund others that were working. It‘s a matter of priorities.
I can go through it chapter and verse but I don‘t have the numbers in front of me. The only time we had the balanced budget was when we had Bill Clinton in the White House and we Democrats were willing to pay as you go. We have the reputation and we have shown that not only can we balance the budget but we can get rid of the debt.
Now we‘re in debt to such a degree that it‘s going to be very difficult to get out of it, but the place to start is fiscal responsibility and pay as you go which, by the way, I was trained in economics and when I became a county supervisor, even this person who believes there is a role for government and we need to help people, definitely went for pay as you go because that‘s the way we should do it in our families and in the government.
MATTHEWS: Name a program you‘d cut?
BOXER: Well, at this point I would tell you, there‘s Star Wars is one great example. We are putting billions into Star Wars and so far it hasn‘t even passed the test. That‘s just one example.
MATTHEWS: Let me ask you about immigration because it seems like the lock and key, sort of the enforcer of the bill, is not just tougher border enforcement. Everyone knows you can get through the border if you really try, it‘s about employer sanctions.
Do you think after the bill gets worked on in the House and signed by the president that we‘ll have something better than Simpson-Mazzoli back 20 years ago that really will make it hard for an employer to hire somebody in a cheaper market rate because they‘re here illegally.
BOXER: I‘m glad you raised the program—excuse me. I‘m really glad you raised the issue of the responsibility of employers here, because they have a responsibility. And the fact is that I want to make sure that they can‘t get an American worker before they hire a guest worker, and I have an amendment that will be in the manager‘s package of amendments that will do just that.
It will make sure that they have to attest to the fact that they can‘t find an American worker. I think that‘s important. I cannot predict to you what is going to happen at the end of the day here. We are in many ways playing with fire.
Why do I say that? Because although I really do believe the Senate is doing a good job in crafting a pretty good bill, a pretty well-balanced bill, balanced between tough enforcement but a path to legality for those 12 million people, an ag jobs program, these things are all good.
But when we get to the conference committee where they try to take the House bill and the Senate bill, I don‘t know if those folks over in the House are going to do anything regarding employer responsibility or any of this. Other than just tough, tough, it‘s a felony if you bend over and help someone who is lying on the floor in front of you who happens to be an undocumented immigrant.
I‘m worried about the final product. I‘m hopeful. I‘m prayerful but we will have to watch it very carefully.
MATTHEWS: Has this become an ethnic thing in California where you can predict that most Republicans in the House of Representatives have taken a basic tough position against illegal immigration and would basically like to send some people home and not have any more coming into the country from across the southern border? And Democrats are taking a mixed view. They have a lot of Hispanic or Latino voters? They are doing something like you are doing. Has it become an ethnic thing between the parties?
BOXER: A very good point. Let me tell you when it became big election issue. When Pete Wilson was so very tough, punitive toward immigrants in our state. But right now, the Republicans are worried. There‘s a much more nuanced position there.
If you look at my state, we are a melting pot beyond belief and our state is doing great. I think the balance view of comprehensive reform, where you do have a path to get people out of the shadows—you know you can‘t continue winking and nodding while there are millions of workers all around you who are here because they risked their lives to get here. We have to figure this out. But if you‘re going to figure that out, you also have to toughen the borders. I think that this view is becoming more prevalent among all political leaders in my state. Democrats and Republicans.
MATTHEWS: Do you think we have the technology to stop people from using forged documents or bogus documents to prove their legality? Are we there yet?
BOXER: I think we‘re getting there but it is something that has to continually stay ahead of the curve. I think there are ways we can use the data that you get from not only fingerprinting but from your eye—what do you call that when you --?
MATTHEWS: I know what you mean. I saw a movie.
BOXER: It‘s in there now. You can actually have a situation where they can just tell from the facial recognition that are you that person. So, these are the things that are coming online that we need to use more of. The high-tech industry has done so much. It should be able to help us here.
MATTHEWS: Thank you very much for waiting for us tonight. Barbara Boxer of California. Coming up, Democratic strategist Steve McMahon and former RNC Chairman Jim Gilmore, the former governor of Virginia.
And later in the hour, can the Republicans hang on to Congress? Senator Majority Leader Bill Frist is going to be here. He‘s the top Republican.
Plus, where will Bill Clinton be if Hillary Clinton wins the White House? Is he going to live in the White House or run his corporation? You‘re watching HARDBALL on MSNBC.
MATTHEWS: Welcome back to HARDBALL. Is President Bush helping or hurting his party in the midterm elections, and what does a “New York Times” article about Bill and Hillary Clinton‘s marriage tell us about a potential Hillary run for presidency? Here to talk about that and everything else, Democratic strategist Steve McMahon and former Virginia governor and former Republican national chairman Jim Gilmore. Welcome, gentlemen.
The front page of “The New York” has opened the floodgates to a discussion of the Clintons‘ marriage. I‘ve got to tell you, I‘m stunned by the language of the paper of record. Quote, “Mr. Clinton is rarely without company in public, yet the company he keeps rarely includes his wife. When the subject of Bill and Hillary Clinton comes up, for many prominent Democrats these days, topic A is the state of their marriage. Bill and Hillary Clinton have built largely separate lives.”
Steve McMahon, why is this in a newspaper? Why is top of the fold in “The New York Times” now in May of 2006?
STEVE MCMAHON, DEMOCRATIC STRATEGIST: Well, I can‘t speak to the timing and I can‘t speak to the placement, but I think people are interested in the Clintons, and they‘re interested in Mrs. Clinton. And, you know, I think as people begin to look at her as a possible presidential candidate, they‘re going to be examining every aspect of her record, every aspect of her life, and I guess it just starts today.
MATTHEWS: Is Bill Clinton an albatross, Governor, around Hillary‘s neck?
JIM GILMORE, FORMER RNC CHAIRMAN: Well, yes, but I think that the real point here is that this is a very different situation. We‘ve never had a former president who might go in and essentially play the role of first lady. I have never seen anything quite like that before. I think the American people are nervous about it.
MATTHEWS: But this article isn‘t about being a lady; it‘s about being a man. Come on.
GILMORE: The point is, the point is that we‘ve never seen a former president go back to the White House and live in these kind of situations. So they‘re starting a conversation to see how the American people would react to that.
MATTHEWS: Is Bill Clinton fair game for the press right now because his wife is going to run—his wife is going to run for president?
MCMAHON: Well, he‘s fair game in the press because he‘s a former president. But I mean, I‘d hate to think that “The New York Times” is applying a different standard to Mrs. Clinton than perhaps they would apply to a different candidate.
It‘s true, as the governor says, that we haven‘t seen this before, but one would have to wonder, if the tables were turned, if it would be the same level of fascination. Obviously, you know, it sells newspapers or it wouldn‘t be there, but you have got to wonder whether or not this would be the treatment that somebody would be getting if they weren‘t a woman and if they weren‘t, you know, Hillary Rodham Clinton.
MATTHEWS: Do you think this might be a sophisticated way of “The New York Times,” as the paper of record in the country, saying to the Clintons, beware, we‘re watching? Whatever goes on from now on between now and you running for president, whatever your husband does, no matter who he‘s seen with, that‘s a news story we‘re going to cover. Isn‘t that what they‘re saying?
GILMORE: You know what I got out of the story? I got out of the story how different this relationship is from what our normal expectations are. Now, you‘re kind of a conservative guy, family guy and all that kind of thing and you‘re used to a particular kind of family unit. Clintons aren‘t that. They‘re very different people. They‘re running around with their own separate lives, and I think that this article is about telling the American people, look, this is really different from what you‘re used to seeing, and you‘re going to have two big power players at work here. How do you feel about that?
MATTHEWS: Do you think they‘re trying to say this is a ‘60s marriage, this is an open marriage, some sort of a closet way of saying that, that‘s what they‘re really saying here?
MCMAHON: No, I don‘t think so at all. I think—I think...
MCMAHON: It‘s a modern marriage. It‘s a marriage where two people have very separate lives and very separate careers, and they get together as often as they can. It said that of the last...
MCMAHON: Well, of the last 73 weekends, they spent 50 or 55 of those weekends together. I don‘t think that‘s particularly unusual, and I especially don‘t think it‘s unusual for a former president and somebody who is a United States senator. They have a lot of things on their plate.
MATTHEWS: This is going to be a big buzz for the next couple of weeks. What I predict here—let me ask you both—do you think this is going to open the door for a lot of other newspapers to reconstruct the same story and go in the same direction, focusing on the private life of the president—of the candidate, potential candidate and the former president? Steve?
MCMAHON: I think it has the potential to do that, and I actually think it‘s unfortunate.
MATTHEWS: Is it fair, Governor?
GILMORE: It‘s fair, but what I got out of the article was kind of human interest. I don‘t think it‘s such a great life, quite frankly.
MATTHEWS: Let me ask you about it, let‘s look at the politics, first of all. We had Barbara Boxer from the Senate from California a minute ago. You heard her. She is saying it looks right now, if the election were held right now—and it‘s not going to be, it‘s going to be held in November—that the Democrats would break even in the Senate. Of course, that doesn‘t give them control, because the vice president can still break the tie the other way. What do you think? Is that where it‘s at now?
MCMAHON: I think there are seven races in the Senate that are very, very serious problems for the Republicans. And there are another three that could become problems. I think there‘s an opportunity here. If the election were held today, that the Democrats would take both the House and the Senate. But as you point out, it‘s a long way away. Six months is an eternity in politics.
MATTHEWS: You think Harold Ford can win in Tennessee?
MCMAHON: I think he could. I mean, I think that‘s one of the harder ones for the Democrats to pick up, but he‘s doing quite well. He‘s hitting all the right notes, and I think, you know, over at the Democratic Senate Campaign Committee, they‘re pretty optimistic.
MATTHEWS: Governor, what do you think about your party here? Can it hold the Senate or the House?
GILMORE: I think it‘s kind of early to be trying to prognosticate on this race or that race. My counsel to my party would be to think carefully about the direction that we want to point for the people of the United States, and talk about foreign policy, talk about homeland security, talk about taxation and liberty kinds of issues, and make the point strong that (inaudible) to anything else that‘s going on on the national scene, and I think they‘ll be all right.
MATTHEWS: Well, let‘s look at the potpourri of issues. You have got gas prices which are still high. You have got the Iraq war, which is still taking casualties over there. You have got the immigration system, which gets murkier and murkier. Where is the win for the Republicans in the—in that set of issues? Where is the win for your party?
GILMORE: I think they have got to strike out and show independence.
I think they‘ve got to show that they‘re...
MATTHEWS: From the president?
GILMORE: Yes, I think they have got to show that they‘re their own people. We already know that the polling is showing that people have a tendency to like their own congressman, but I don‘t think they can be passive. I think they have to be aggressive about pointing the direction that they want to take the country. The big advantage we have is the Democrats are still, I think, have not pointed particularly to much of a direction, and that‘s the one big advantage we have. We at least in the Republican Party are fighting over everything.
MATTHEWS: Don‘t you sense that there‘s something in the wind here, in terms of incumbents getting whacked? Look at Pennsylvania, those state senators, the top Republicans, never beaten in those district, beaten in their own primaries because of the pay raise issue up in Pennsylvania?
MCMAHON: Yeah, there‘s no question there‘s a—there is a bit of an anti-incumbent sort of mood out there.
MATTHEWS: This Jefferson case, with the guy with the money in the refrigerator, frozen in his ice trays, that‘s not going to help the image of politicians -- $90,000 sitting in his refrigerator?
MCMAHON: Well, I don‘t know about you, Chris, but I have got $90,000 in my refrigerator. I don‘t think it‘s really that uncommon.
MATTHEWS: Yeah, but it‘s marked bills. They were marked by the FBI when they fed them to him.
MCMAHON: That‘s a little unusual. I‘ll give you that.
MATTHEWS: I mean, doesn‘t that create a kind of bipartisan sleaze ball look at Washington? You‘ve got that. You‘ve got a much less evil, I guess, but it‘s troubling, the Patrick Kennedy arrest, or the trouble he had with his car that night. And all these things seem to add to a picture of disorder, doesn‘t it?
MCMAHON: They contribute to a picture of disorder, but I think that there‘s—I mean, all joking aside, there is a difference here. And the difference is, there was a criminal enterprise, for instance, being run of the White House. There were people led out in handcuffs.
MCMAHON: Safavian. The vice president‘s chief of staff is under indictment. The president‘s top adviser is under investigation.
MATTHEWS: His domestic policy adviser was caught for shoplifting.
MCMAHON: Yes, right. The Republican leader of the United States Senate is being investigated for insider trading. I mean, you‘ve got that the House leader is under indictment and is on his way out. There is a systematic strain of corruption that‘s running through the top levels of the Republican Party right now.
There are, I admit, instances where, admittedly, it looks like there are Democrats who are involved in the same kind of activity, but they‘re isolated and they‘re unique to an individual. They‘re not widespread.
MATTHEWS: What‘s causing the partisan nature of the corruption that you claim here?
MCMAHON: I don‘t know.
MATTHEWS: Is it arrogance? Is it absolute power corrupts absolutely?
MCMAHON: Well, I think there‘s a general sense that the Bush administration brought to town that the laws don‘t apply to them and the rules don‘t apply to them, and the means justify the ends no matter what the ends are.
MATTHEWS: Quite honestly, Governor, do you think there comes a time when a political party, for its own good, needs to be kicked out to clean up its act?
GILMORE: I do think that times like that come, Chris, as a matter of fact. But I‘m prepared to say this. If the Republican Party will stand up and articulate an appropriate direction for this country, go back to its values and its standards.
There‘s enough corruption to go around for everybody. Instead, talk about what real policy is. Address the issues of foreign policy, address the issues of taxation and regular peoples‘ concerns. I think the Republicans can still win.
MATTHEWS: There‘s a lot of Republicans out there watching right now who think the party has not done that, that the party is not a party of fiscal responsibility anymore, of balanced budgets. It‘s not looking out for our borders, it‘s not stopping illegal immigrants.
It‘s playing political games because the president wants to build a bigger Latino Republican base. He‘s playing the same politics of immigrant ethnic politics the Democrats have always played. We‘ll be right back with Steve McMahon and Governor Jim Gilmore.
And later, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist is going to be here to respond to Steve McMahon.
You‘re watching HARDBALL on MSNBC.
MATTHEWS: We‘re back with Steve McMahon and Governor Jim Gilmore, former Republican National Chairman.
Mr. Gilmore, Mr. Governor, sir.
GILMORE: Yes, sir?
MATTHEWS: What would you advise if you had the ear of the president to turn this thing around? We‘re talking about all the bad news that keeps coming in, the casualty reports from overseas, the gas prices which are real. There‘s not much you can do about either of those. What can he do to make people like him more? Because the latest polling shows—and I‘m always amazed by this—it‘s personal now. People don‘t like George W. Bush now.
GILMORE: I think he has to go back to values. I think that what brought him to the dance was the fact that people believed that he believed in things and I think that there has been a tendency over the last several years whether it‘s handlers of himself or whatever it is to tend to look a little more political than he probably ought to look.
If I were counseling the president, I would say, listen, decide how you feel about the principle issues, tell people straight from the shoulder how you feel about it, and then I think you‘ll do better.
MATTHEWS: Do you think he‘s tired?
GILMORE: Well, I think when you‘ve been in the White House, you do get tired but I think that the president was—is a person who has got to go back to his roots and tell people what he‘s thinking.
MATTHEWS: I was interesting in David Gregory, our colleague here at NBC, who interviewed the president last week. And I don‘t know if I would have had the nerve to do that.
MCMAHON: I thought that was a great question, didn‘t you?
MATTHEWS: He asked him, he said, do you think you‘re at that point where the people don‘t want to hear from you anymore like Nixon was in Watergate? And he just threw it right at him. I thought that was a little strong, but the president laughed at it and he went on and said, I don‘t think I‘m there yet.
MCMAHON: I thought it was a gutsy question and I thought—you know, I thought it was a legitimate question, because you have to wonder.
MATTHEWS: Of course you did. You‘d like him to be tougher, but it was tough.
MCMAHON: But I don‘t know how he could have been much tougher than that. But you have to wonder—I mean, here‘s—you‘re right. It‘s personal now. It used to be that people disagreed with him on issues and now people think that he doesn‘t have moral character. They think he‘s not telling the truth.
MATTHEWS: Moral character, where?
MCMAHON: They don‘t think he‘s honest and trustworthy.
MATTHEWS: Where do you see that?
MCMAHON: The honest and trustworthy number is at about 30 percent.
MATTHEWS: Because of the WMD and the war?
MCMAHON: Because of the WMD. It‘s a whole range of things where the administration hasn‘t told the American public the truth, and now it‘s at the point where the American people aren‘t sure, no matter what they‘re saying, whether or not they can believe them. And that‘s a real problem.
When you need to rally people to your cause and say, for instance, we really can‘t do much on oil prices, well, it‘s hard for people to believe that the most powerful man in the world can‘t do anything about oil prices, especially when he‘s an oil man.
When they say that, you know, we‘re going to be in Iraq for a long time, and there‘s not too much we can do about that, people just don‘t want to accept it. And it‘s a real problem for them. They don‘t believe what comes out of the mouths of these administration officials.
MATTHEWS: Do you think, Governor, that George Bush has killed affability as a plus? From now on, we don‘t want a affable, friendly, towel-snapping frat boy as president. Now we want somebody a little tougher, a little nastier? What are people going to find in your party?
For example, George Allen is a lot like George Bush. He‘s friendly. He‘s a jock in a way. He‘s happy go lucky. He‘s a good guy to hang out with, kicks back. But isn‘t it a problem when the country has had eight years of affability. They‘re looking for a little more maybe serious customer maybe. Who knows?
GILMORE: I think affability is an element that‘s real positive. But at the end of the day ...
MATTHEWS: Still positive?
GILMORE: Yes, but it isn‘t everything. At the end of the day, I think you have to think about issues. I think you have to be educated about issues and you have to be in a position to talk about the direction of the nation.
MATTHEWS: Is the president capable in those areas?
GILMORE: I think the president can do these things but what you really need to do now is to focus also on where the candidates are, as we‘re coming along, and make sure that they have got some legitimate answers on some of these questions like homeland security and liberties and freedom at home and taxes and foreign policy that‘s broader than what we‘ve seen. And I think we have a lot more.
MATTHEWS: Do you think Republicans are upset about this NSA spying?
GILMORE: A lot of Republicans are. Conservative Republicans are very concerned about it.
MATTHEWS: Because it gets into the libertarian—Bush is there. It bothers people about their freedom from their own government.
GILMORE: It does. i think that we have to be careful not to stoke so much fear in this society that people are willing to give up their liberties. I‘m not for that. I think we can be secure at home. We can have Homeland Security, and we have freedom at home, and I believe we have to do those things.
MATTHEWS: Is the president a libertarian?
GILMORE: Yes, I think that he is.
MATTHEWS: You think that he is, he still is. Is Cheney a libertarian, the vice president?
GILMORE: The vice president? Well, I don‘t know about the vice president.
MATTHEWS: I‘d say he‘s the security force, but what do you think?
MCMAHON: He‘s an authoritarian, I think.
MATTHEWS: Do you think this issue really works in the suburbs? Where does it work, this question of the overreach of government, too much control, too much spying, too much inundation?
MCMAHON: Well, here‘s how I think it works. I think it reinforces the impression that this administration has cultivated, that the rules and the laws of this country don‘t apply to them and that they can do whatever the heck they want. That‘s pretty much the way they behave.
MATTHEWS: So the Democrats would get rid of this NSA spying program.
MCMAHON: Listen, I think the Democrats would say ...
MATTHEWS: But how come they haven‘t done it?
MCMAHON: ... we can operate the same spying program within the law, Chris.
MATTHEWS: You haven‘t done it. You guys haven‘t done it.
MCMAHON: Well, we don‘t have control of the Congress.
MATTHEWS: You haven‘t even proposed it.
MCMAHON: We can‘t get a vote on anything.
MATTHEWS: Have then propose it.
GILMORE: They haven‘t provided any leadership. That‘s the only advantage we‘ve got.
MATTHEWS: Please come back, Steve McMahon, Governor Jim Gilmore.
Still ahead, we‘ll talk about whether Congress will agree on this immigration plan the president has with Senate Republican leader Bill Frist.
Also coming up, as Republicans hope to hold onto the Congress, has President Bush himself—we‘ve been talking about that—become a liability for his party?
Plus, much more on the marriage of Bill and Hillary Clinton. I mean that. We‘re going to talk about that front-page story in the “New York Times” today. It opens up the old floodgates.
You‘re watching HARDBALL on MSNBC.
MATTHEWS: Welcome back to HARDBALL.
Big elections coming, big questions looming. Can Democrats finally win back power in Congress? Do they really deserve it? Is George Bush doomed if Democrats prevail? And the Clinton marriage is top of the fold, front and center in the “New York Times” today. We‘ll get to all of this, rough and tumble issues, in this half-hour. Plus, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist is coming here to play HARDBALL.
But first, we‘re joined by Philly radio talk show host Michael Smerconish and “New York Times” columnist Bob Herbert. Mike and Bob, thank you very much for joining us.
Let‘s talk about the front page of the “New York Times” today, at the very top of the fold. I mean, it‘s right up there at the banner, “The Clinton Marriage,” for the “Clintons‘ delicate dance of married and public lives.” This is the most teasing story I‘ve come across in the “New York Times” in a long time, the paper of record.
Let me give you some quotes. “Mr. Clinton is rarely without company in public, yet the company he keeps rarely includes his wife. When the subject of Bill and Hillary Clinton comes up, for many prominent Democrats these days, topic A is the state of their marriage. Bill and Hillary Clinton have built largely separate lives.”
It‘s a complicated story, Bob, but why do you think your paper—I know you don‘t put the front page together. Why did Bill Keller put this story at the top of the newspaper today?
BOB HERBERT, “NEW YORK TIMES” COLUMNIST: Well, you have to ask Bill, but I can tell you that in my travels, people are really interested in the state of this marriage and, frankly, I think, you know, with Hillary‘s presumed presidential ambitions, the state of the marriage is going to actually be a factor in her chances of getting the Democratic nomination, and then perhaps, you know, becoming president.
MATTHEWS: The question I have for you, Michael, is that I was up there in Philly today on your show—it was great to be on your show. Let me ask you about this story. Without getting to much into the goo of this story, which I‘m sure we‘ll get into at some point between now and 2008, here‘s the question.
Why today, why the “New York Times” break from the gate? We all thought this story would begin to evolve sometime after the election when Hillary gets reelected in New York, in all probability. We‘d be talking about her presidential campaign and, of course, every aspect of her life becomes fair game at that point. Why do you think the “Times” broke from the gate? This is May 23rd?
MICHAEL SMERCONISH, WPHT TALK RADIO - PHILADELPHIA: I think that it‘s probably the one issue about Hillary that people are most interested in. If I were to open up the telephone lines in Philly and I were to question folks about the Hillary candidacy, this is going to be way up there, probably beyond Iraq.
I thought it was significant that in a typical month, they spend 14 days together. You know what, Chris? Not me. I want to make clear, but I think there are a lot of guys out there married who are probably envious of that number.
MATTHEWS: Well, I‘m not. Let me ask you this.
HERBERT: Neither am I, Chris.
MATTHEWS: Let me go back to Bob Herbert. Let‘s go to this story here. I think we‘re learning more about Michael. The story here, I think legitimately is this. A former president‘s spouse is running for president. What role will the former president play in the politics of her getting elected or not getting elected? That‘s a fair question.
HERBERT: That is a fair question. I also think it‘s interesting that Bill Clinton, which we‘ve already I think noticed, is trying to take a lower profile when he‘s appearing publicly with Hillary and I think that‘s a good idea. I mean, this guy is such a powerful personality that the tendency is to overshadow her and he doesn‘t want that to happen.
MATTHEWS: Well, it happened recently, didn‘t it?
HERBERT: Oh, it did. I mean, at the funeral of the widow of Dr. Martin Luther King, Coretta Scott King, there was an awful lot of talk about that.
MATTHEWS: How good he was and how bad she was.
HERBERT: Well, I don‘t know how bad she was, but she wasn‘t as good as he was.
MATTHEWS: Michael, on the substantive question, remember Hillary came out and joined the national cacophony, which you were a part of, about this ports deal with the Dubai Ports taking over, like, the Port of Philadelphia and things like that, which are very sensitive in south Philly and everywhere else in a big city in the United States. And it turns out that Bill Clinton took the other side. He was sort of playing footsie with the Dubai people.
SMERCONISH: It does turn out that way, and what a beautiful marriage because they can be all things to all people, but I think, you know, one of the questions you‘ve asked is what‘s going to happen in this next cycle.
The Democrats only represent that which they‘re against and what they failed to do is far is to articulate what they‘re actually for, and everybody wants to make these comparisons to 1994 and is the loss for the Republicans going to equate that which the Democrats lost in 1994?
Don‘t forget, Chris, we had Newt. He was putting forth an agenda. It was the Contract with America, and the Ds have got to come up with something if they really want to capitalize on the president‘s poor numbers.
MATTHEWS: OK. Do you think that‘s true, Bob, that you have to offer an alternative program to the president‘s, or you can just sit there as brand X and say, look, we‘re better than that?
HERBERT: Well, I don‘t agree with either. I don‘t think the Democrats can just sit there, but I also don‘t know that it‘s a winning strategy to offer a specific alternative to each aspect of the Bush agenda.
I mean, what I think the Democrats need to do in a broad way is to just push on this idea that there‘s a real desire for change in this country, and then you know, that old Jack Kennedy quote, we can do better. If I were to come up with a slogan for the Democrats, it would be a change for the better and keep hammering that.
I can make one other point. The fact that we‘re talking about the Clintons‘ marriage here I think is just that kind of discussion, the story in The Times today is really harmful for Hillary‘s presidential chances, because I think that there is a real hunger for change in this country politically, and I think if we keep harping on that, and I think it is a legitimate story, but I mean, if the media does keep harping on that, there will be a tendency among the electorate to say, you know, enough already. We‘re going to move on. We may move in a different direction.
MATTHEWS: It may be like putting on the old bad tire that you‘ve gotten fixed a few times on your car. We‘re back again where we started. Do you think there is a fatigue out there of the Bushes and the Clintons together like for years we‘ve had the Bushes, we had Nixon all the time, now we‘ve got the Clintons all around us, do you think, Michael, that people are tired of this bunch?
SMERCONISH: I think that if there were a new face out there, but on the Democrat side of the aisle, I don‘t see who that individual could be. Hillary is the one with star power.
MATTHEWS: Al Gore would be a new face, wouldn‘t it?
SMERCONISH: Would he really? I‘m not sure. I think a completely new name is exactly what they need, but even on the Republican side of the aisle, we‘re back to John McCain and I think the world of John McCain. It‘s a great opportunity for a new face but where is that individual?
MATTHEWS: I‘ll tell you. I think the list of possible presidents is shorter than the list of possible network anchors. It seems like such a short list, and like we used to have Jean Mauk (ph) every couple of years we would get a new baseball team. The only way to get teams as a manager baseball is to hire somebody who has been fired somewhere. We‘ll be right back with Michael Smerconish and Bob Herbert.
MATTHEWS: We‘re back with radio talk show host Michael Smerconish of Philadelphia, and “New York Times” columnist Bob Herbert.
Bob, let me read you something from your newspaper. This story at the front top of the newspaper, the very top of the newspaper, it‘s amazing, there it is, the top.
Quote, because of Mr. Clinton‘s behavior in the White House, tabloid gossip sticks to him like iron fillings to a magnet. This is “The New York Times.” Several prominent New York Democrats in interviews volunteered that they became concerned last year over a tabloid photograph showing Mr. Clinton leaving BLT Steak in Midtown Manhattan late one night after dining with a group that included a Olinda Stonack (ph), a Canadian politician, the two were among roughly a dozen people at a dinner, but it still was enough to fuel coverage in the gossip pages. What do you think of front page top of the fold story by the “The New York Times” is going to do to him tomorrow and the next couple of weeks?
HERBERT: I don‘t know what it‘s going to do in the next couple of weeks. I do think that that story reflects what political types and also an awful lot of voters actually talk about and think about when they‘re considering president Clinton and Mrs. Clinton‘s presidential possibilities. I mean, the state of their marriage and the Clintons‘ scandals is sort of lurking there, just beneath the surface, almost all the time.
MATTHEWS: What is the rule—what are the rules of play in your newspaper? You‘re the great paper in this country, what are the rules about what‘s in and what‘s out? Here they‘ve got what‘s in is apparently any reference to any tabloid, any appearance at a restaurant with somebody. Of course there‘s always a back story, a subtext to anything that runs in the paper. There‘s always the hint-hint. What do you think the rules of engagement are for the press and the Clinton marriage?
HERBERT: Chris, I have to cop out on that one. We‘re on the op-ed page where we have a tremendous amount of freedom. We do not work for Bill Keller. That‘s a judgment call.
MATTHEWS: It‘s usually the other way around. They say we don‘t talk for the editorial page. Let me go to Michael Smerconish where the rules of engagement are somewhat broader on talk radio. I mean I wonder if there are any sometimes. “The New York Times” has said they‘re off. It‘s almost like listening to Revele at the Kentucky Derby, they‘re off. Let‘s talk about the Clintons.
But it is interesting to me that they keep quoting prominent Democrats, the money people, the people that really drive these campaigns, the political leaders are worried that somehow Mrs. Clinton, who could be the front-runner tomorrow morning if she announces running for president, could be leading all the polls, except we don‘t know how her husband‘s life is going to affect what he might do in the next year or two, the state of the marriage will affect that? Isn‘t that what they‘re putting on the front page?
SMERCONISH: This is one of those stories, Chris, that I read three times and I kept saying to myself as I was reading it, what is it I‘m supposed to be taking away from this that they‘re afraid to say.
MATTHEWS: Me too. What is it that‘s in here that we have to pull out of here.
SMERCONISH: Here‘s my conclusion. The conclusion I came to is what The Times wanted to convey is the same as it ever was with regard to the Clinton marriage.
MATTHEWS: What was that? I missed it.
SMERCONISH: I said same as it ever was with regard to the Clinton marriage. That was the message that I finally decided I was supposed to take away from that story.
HERBERT: Well if you read the story and I read it once, I did not read it three times, but if you read the story, I think it gives a pretty clear picture. Now I don‘t know how accurate, because I don‘t know about the state of the Clinton‘s marriage, but I think it gives a pretty clear picture of what can be known on the record about the way things are with the Clintons.
MATTHEWS: It was very carefully reported. Let me read you a quote from the Clintons. It‘s quite an interesting quote here. She is an active senator who like most members of Congress has to be in Washington for part of most weeks. He is a former president running a multi-million dollar global foundation. Their home is in New York and they do everything they can to be together, there or at their house in D.C. as often as possible. Often going to great lengths to do so. When their work schedules require that they be apart, they talk all the time.
That‘s a very defensive, formalized statement isn‘t it, Bob?
HERBERT: I really don‘t know. I read it and I didn‘t look for a hidden agenda, honestly.
HERBERT: I thought that was a reasonable accurate depiction of what‘s going on.
MATTHEWS: Could it be to avoid all this kind of speculation that we‘re already involved in and I take responsibility—well, I share it with “The New York Times” here, Michael—that what they‘re really saying, the official spokespeople for these two impressive people is that they‘re saying don‘t count on Bill Clinton living in the White House if Hillary gets elected.
He‘s going to run a big, multimillion dollar—they say, the spokesman says, foundation. He‘s got a lot of responsibilities up in New York City at his office up there, so don‘t count on him being like a house husband or a first gentleman. Is that what they‘re setting up here?
SMERCONISH: No way. No, what they were saying is that most guys escape to the golf course to get away from their wives and in his case, she‘s in the United States Senate and that‘s his excuse.
HERBERT: Well, I don‘t think they‘re saying that he won‘t be, you know, the first husband. I mean, I think that Bill Clinton is such a political junkie, that he won‘t be able to stay away if Hillary is president.
MATTHEWS: Well I hate being away from my wife more than a day or two, but thank you, Mike. You obviously don‘t mind that at all. Anyway, Bob Herbert, you go home and face her now. Thank you Bob Herbert. Up next, the Republican leader in the Senate, Bill Frist, he‘s coming here. This is HARDBALL, only on MSNBC.
MATTHEWS: Welcome back to HARDBALL. The U.S. Senate‘s expected to approve an overhaul on immigration policy this week but the bill which includes a guest worker program and a path to citizenship, is poised to clash with House Republicans who want legislation focused entirely on border security and punishing illegal hiring. Will Congress pass an immigrant bill that suits what President Bush wants? And will a guest worker program split the Republican Party rMD+IN_rMDNM_and drive conservatives away from the polls this November? Senator Bill Frist is the majority leader of the United States Senate. Senator Frist, do you think you‘ll get a Senate bill passed?
SEN. BILL FRIST (R-TN), MAJORITY LEADER: Yes, Thursday afternoon.
MATTHEWS: Will it all the pieces: the employer sanctions, the border protection, the legalization and the guest-worker program?
FRIST: Yes. It will be a comprehensive bill. And Chris, the reason why I can say that is I filed what‘s called a cloture petition which means tomorrow morning at 8, 9, or 10:00, we‘ll vote. And from there, 30 hours later, we‘ll bring the bill to a close. That will be Thursday afternoon. It will be a comprehensive bill.
What stopped the bill three weeks ago or four weeks ago is when the Democratic leader said there will be no more amendments. And clearly this bill needs to be improved. It still needs to be improved tonight, tomorrow, we‘ll be voting today, tomorrow and Thursday.
At the end of that process, we‘ll have a comprehensive bill that will look at the 12 billion people who are out there today illegally. It does have a temporary guest-worker program that looks at employment, workplace enforcement and the border security.
MATTHEWS: There‘s so much politics in this, as you know more than I do about Hispanics coming into the country and a demographic change in the country, the need for cheap labor among business or lower-wage employment, the concerns by a lot of people who are not Hispanic, that they‘re coming into, in greater numbers than they should.
All the sensitivities have been exposed in the last couple of weeks of debate. Do you think that you can have a Democratic Party helping you pass a bill or are they out there still to try to sabotage this?
FRIST: You know, initially I was very concerned. When the Democratic leader says I, the Democratic leader is going to name the comp three‘s, who they are, how many they are, and we‘re not going to let you put any amendments out there, I knew it was just going to be a partisan effort.
Since that time, we‘ve had an open process. We‘ve allowed every senator to come to the floor. We will by the end have over 23, 24 Republican amendments offered and 10, 15, maybe 20 Democratic amendments. With that, it‘s not a perfect bill but the process itself has worked. The problem is out there, we all know it. As elected representatives, we‘ve got to show that we can govern. It will be bipartisan, not a perfect bill.
MATTHEWS: Let me ask you about the chance of a final bill. It seems like you‘re in cross purposes with the House. You have what you call a comprehensive bill. The House basically wants to stop illegal immigration in its tracks. In fact, reverse the flow of illegal immigrants back across the border. How can you meet their demands?
FRIST: Chris, I think if you look where the debate is, or where it was a month ago, just having these four weeks—really four weeks total of debate on the floor of this Senate, people pay a lot more attention to the issue.
They‘ve studied it, they‘ve moved towards an understanding that you can‘t just build a fence where we started and send everybody back who is here illegally, even if they‘ve been there for 12, 13 or 14 years. We progress with a debate. And I expect what will happen even after we pass it on the floor of the Senate, that the debate will continue, the discussion will continue and will moves toward the Senate position. Again, the House has taken a strong position on border security only. I think people realize that you‘ve got to address the magnet pulling people here if you really want to seal the border.
MATTHEWS: I read the other day, Senator, that if this bill is passed, there will be a 100 million more people here from below the border in 20 years. Do you think the country will like that new America with a much larger contingent of Spanish background people?
FRIST: Yes, and I think that is...
MATTHEWS: ... You think they‘ll like that?
FRIST: No, they wouldn‘t like that. And I don‘t believe all the assumptions that went in that everybody here today is going to apply for legal citizenship 11 or 12 years from now. So I don‘t agree with the assumptions. We are going to have more legal immigrants here, but that‘s better than having 12 million people here today who we don‘t know who they are, what their intentions are, who are in the shadows today. So yes, there will be a strong temporary worker program and for those 12 million people who have been here longer than five years, they will be able to earn legalization after 11 years, if they meet all the criteria.
MATTHEWS: Why would a guest worker agree to go home once he‘s here, or she‘s here?
FRIST: Well, if they‘re less than two years, they‘ve got to go home.
MATTHEWS: How do you make that happen?
FRIST: Well they‘ve just got to come out of the shadows. Right now the jobs that they have, if they‘ve been here for a year or a year or a half or up to two years—if they‘ve got a job, we‘re going to crackdown on the employer at the workplace and they are no longer going to have that job.
MATTHEWS: OK, do you believe it‘s possible to develop a fool-proof, tamper-proof I.D. card so we can identify and separate the legal from the illegal people in this country?
FRIST: Well Chris, we‘ve got to. Right now there‘s a great amendment on the floor, right as we speak that Mitch McConnell has that says that anybody who is going to be voting in this country has to have a photo voter I.D. Now it may be that we have to legislate that, I know there‘s a lot of discussions of whether or not it‘s legal or not to have the biometrics. And if so, we can legislate that. But it is absolutely critical if we‘re going to enforce at the workplace the law that the employer has something that they can rely on that is fraud proof.
MATTHEWS: OK, thank you very much Senator Bill Frist, majority leader of the United States Senate.
Tomorrow, Senator George Allen of Virginia will be my guest on HARDBALL at 5:00 and 7:00 Eastern. And on Thursday, Tim Russert. “COUNTDOWN” with Keith Olbermann starts right now.
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
Copy: Content and programming copyright 2006 MSNBC. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. Transcription Copyright 2006 Voxant, Inc. (www.voxant.com) ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. No license is granted to the user of this material other than for research. User may not reproduce or redistribute the material except for user‘s personal or internal use and, in such case, only one copy may be printed, nor shall user use any material for commercial purposes or in any fashion that may infringe upon MSNBC and Voxant, Inc.‘s copyright or other proprietary rights or interests in the material. This is not a legal transcript for purposes of litigation.